EDITORIAL: A Creative Fossil

Żyrardów, a town with forty thousand inhabitants in central Poland, which grew around the local textile factory in mid-19th century, owes its name to its first director, inventor of the flax spinning frame, Philippe de Girard. Over time, when the factory was bought by two German businessmen from northern Bohemia, the mill grew to gigantic proportions; along with the factory settlement, which was simultaneously extended, with its workers housing, residences of the management and public buildings (churches, schools, libraries, a kindergarten, a hospital, a dance hall and even a community center, a laundry and public baths), it covered the area of 170 acres. All these buildings are still standing and make the town in which I was born the only 19th-century industrial settlement in Europe preserved in such an excellent condition.

Before World War I Żyrardów was Central Europe in a nutshell. The townspeople spoke five languages in their day-to-day life and represented five confessions: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and—attracting a growing number of practitioners in that period—Marxist. Located on the western frontier of the Russian Empire, inhabited by Polish workers, Jewish craftsmen and traders, Czech foremen, Russian constables as well as German, English and Scottish engineers, it was the most creative place between Warsaw and Łódź. Families of Czech immigrants settled in Żyrardów gave us, for example, two great translators of Czech literature, authors of two different Polish translations of The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk.

Despite the promising beginnings, the town lost its chance in the independent Poland. In 1923, the nationalized factory was bought for peanuts by a French speculator Marcel Boussac. He sold the machines at the price of scrap to his own companies and transported them to France. He took over the domestic and foreign markets of the Żyrardów plant and fired the local workers. His factories in France started running at full steam, thousands of his compatriots found employment in them and Boussac himself started to be seen in the company of prominent politicians and a famous opera singer he soon married. Called the “Cotton King,” he multiplied his wealth through investments in one of the best stud farms of race horses, a press publisher and a fashion house of one Christian Dior (yes, the Dior). For several decades, he was a power behind the scenes of the French world of industry, politics and fashion (which boils down to the same thing). His empire collapsed in 1980, like all Ponzi schemes, when President François Mitterand refused him another loan from the public purse. Marcel Boussac died a few months later.

Today Żyrardów is a fossil from the epoch of iron and steam. In the communist times, the plant produced textiles for the Soviet market and went bankrupt after 1989. Now there is no industry in the town and the biggest investment is building loft apartments in the century-old factory halls, going on for several years with many hitches along the way. Many inhabitants commute daily—taking to the motorway or the railway—to work or study in Warsaw 45 kilometers to the east. Many stay in the capital for good. Although the municipal authorities received EU funds for the revitalization of the most important monuments and life in Żyrardów is definitely better and more comfortable than ever—but is it even partly as creative as it was in 1913? Is should be, for the town has all the necessary wherewithal: a unique infrastructure, a location close to important transport routes, industrial traditions and above all a large group of best educated young people in its entire history.

In this respect, Żyrardów again is Central Europe in a nutshell.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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